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Gruesome Attack Puts Schools On Front Line Of France's Fight To Stop Extremism

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A controversial law to combat radical Islam is set to pass the French Parliament in the coming days. It maintains that extremist doctrine is creeping into the country's institutions and has to be stopped. This comes after a teacher was beheaded last fall by radicalized youth over showing caricatures of the prophet Muhammad. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports that schools now find themselves on the front lines of the battle against extremism.

NASSERA KASMI: (Speaking French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: As students file into class, history teacher Nassera Kasmi reminds them to take off their hats and put away their cellphones. Kasmi teaches middle and high schoolers at a vocational lycee in the Paris suburbs. It's a school not unlike the one where teacher Samuel Paty showed caricatures from satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo. He was murdered after a parent's online denunciation went viral, leading his killer to the school. Kasmi says every teacher in France was horrified.

KASMI: (Through interpreter) To kill a teacher for teaching, it's horrific. Maybe that happens in countries at war, but in France? For three days, I didn't sleep.

BEARDSLEY: Kasmi's classroom walls are papered with pictures of historical figures from Charles de Gaulle and Napoleon to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Most of the students' families immigrated to France from places in Africa and North Africa in recent decades. On this day, Kasmi is giving a lesson on French secularism.

KASMI: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Secularism is what allows everyone to practice their religion freely," says Kasmi, who's a Muslim herself. "It ensures the state is neutral and that no faith is favored over another." She tells them if they'd been in school before the separation of church and state in 1905, there'd be a crucifix on the wall of their classroom. And then Kasmi shows some caricatures on the overhead projector.

KASMI: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: In one, an octopus with a clergy hat wraps its tentacles around French institutions like schools and courts. Kasmi says it's important for the students to understand the context of satire in France.

KASMI: (Through interpreter) I show cartoons from the 19th and early 20th centuries to illustrate the history of caricatures and how they take on religion. I tell them you might not like Charlie Hebdo magazine, so you don't have to read it, but you can't stop others from doing so. That's freedom.

BEARDSLEY: The Muslim students in her class feel they're treated equally in France, mostly.

SHAINEZ HADJADJ: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Sometimes, people stare when members of my family are wearing a veil," says Shainez Hadjadj. "After terrorist attacks, the media are always using the word Islamist," says another.

ZIDAN GORES: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Eighteen-year-old Zidan Gores says he understands teachers must appear neutral in a secular place. But why would the police refuse to take his mother's complaint at a precinct because she was wearing a veil?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing, unintelligible).

BEARDSLEY: A national ceremony was held for slain teacher Samuel Paty. President Emmanuel Macron gave the eulogy. He spoke of Paty's passion for teaching.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Building citizens of the republic was his combat, and this task is more essential than ever," said Macron. The new law proposes to fight radical Islam by cracking down on what Macron calls separatist Islam. But for many Muslims, it feels like another layer of stigmatization, says Vincent Geisser, who studies Islam in France.

VINCENT GEISSER: (Through interpreter) He's not saying Muslims are guilty of terrorism, but he's creating a Muslim responsibility for it. Either the imams are not educated or they are too tempted to live within their own communities, insinuating that if you are a religious Muslim, you are against French values. No, it's not true.

BEARDSLEY: A few weeks after Paty's killing, every school in France was instructed to hold a minute of silence. While the Internet was rife with comments that Paty had brought it on himself, teachers were to report any student who didn't respect the silence. Kasmi and her colleague Samia Essabaa say their kids had no idea what had really happened. Many even thought Charlie Hebdo was a person.

SAMIA ESSABAA: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "They get their news from Instagram and other social networks," say the teachers. "The more likes something has, the more it's true. So they spent hours with their pupils to prepare that minute of silence," says Asaba.

ESSABAA: (Through interpreter) You have to take time and hear what they think and know their knowledge gaps. A class on secularism isn't understood in an hour. It's an eternal re-beginning.

BEARDSLEY: The hardest thing, says Essabaa, is to have what they teach contradicted by the media and the reality of society. "Our students often come to us and say, madam, they're talking about Muslims again and blaming us." Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.